Writing a Research Paper: What’s Worked for Me

Pen PaperIt’s that time of the semester where students are faced with looming deadlines for…*scarey music*…research papers. Most students (I like to think) enjoy the learning process, but when it comes to writing a research paper, they’d rather binge watch all of the episodes of Caillou.

Writing a paper can be a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be something you dread or avoid. There are a variety of ways you can approach writing a paper, but what got me on track and to enjoying the writing process is a method that Dr. Ted Cabal (Professor of Christian Worldview and Applied Apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) taught me when I was in my M.Div. days. I used his method throughout the remainder of my masters classes all the way through to my Ph.D. dissertation. As you begin your research process, I’d like to share with you what worked for me.

  • The obvious first step is to determine what topic you are going to research. Ironically, for some students, this is the toughest aspect of writing. Generally your professor will give you some ideas to serve as a springboard into determining your own topic. If you’re still unsure, look through what you’ve covered in class to see if anything piques your curiosity. Is there a topic that relates to an issue you’re dealing with at work or in the ministry? Is there a topic that you are completely unfamiliar with and about which you want to learn more? If all else fails, ask your professor for an idea.
  • Once you have your general topic, brainstorm a list of questions of what you want to know about a that topic. Here you don’t need to worry about whether the questions are related or not. Instead, you’re asking questions that will help guide you in the research of your topic. Once you run out of questions to ask, look at your list and chop out the questions that do not fit or are too broad.
  • With your whittled-down list of questions, write a basic outline based on your questions. This will guide the writing of the paper. Essentially, this outline will serve as the different subsections of your paper – sections that are used to support your thesis.

Now you are ready to do research.

  • Take your outline and go to big picture books (dictionaries, encyclopedias, intros, etc.) and get the big picture of your topic before going into the details. Are there terms or concepts with which you need to be familiar? What thinkers are mentioned often? Does your topic consist of sub-topics? What are competing theories regarding your topic? Modify your outline based on this research.

This is also time for you to build your bibliography. What books or articles are mentioned in the “big picture” sources you’ve read? Use these sources as your springboard into other resources that are relevant to your topic. When you are using a primary or secondary source, be sure to review that book’s bibliography and footnotes (or endnotes) for other sources you can review.

  • Now begin reading the books from the bibliography and write down the big single idea, or several ideas that hit you. Write these ideas down in your own words and cite where the idea fits in your outline. (You also need to be sure you cite the source where the idea originates as this will save you from having to hunt for the source later on.) This must relate to the outline you are using so that you know where it fits in the grand scheme of things.
  • Set a time to quit researching so that you have time to write. It is easy to get caught up in your research. If your topic interests you, you may find it easy to get lost in the research process. However, there is such a thing as too much research. If done correctly, you will have more material than you need to write. So, be sure that you set a date on which you stop researching and begin writing.
  • Writing should be the easiest part. Look at what you found in your research. What contains the most information and interest in regard to your outline? Adjust your outline to what you have found. You can get creative in this step in thinking about how to present things in the paper.

You may find that the further you research your topic, the more you may have to adjust your initial thesis. This is okay and, in my opinion (as well as Dr. Cabal), a sign of good research. Your research should guide your writing. So, make adjustments to your outline and thesis as you write. You don’t want to force a thesis that is not valid or relevant.

Again, there are other valid approaches to writing a paper. I’ve found, though, that Dr. Cabal’s suggestion is the most natural one to follow.

Whatever approach you take, enjoy the process. Writing is indeed a journey. There will be moments of deep insight and periods of intellectual drought. Expect this! However, with discipline and perseverance, you can write a paper that you are proud to claim as your own.


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